Medical examiner releases findings in death of Priscilla Slater

Terminated officer sues city of Harper Woods

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published September 17, 2020

 A cause of death recently was released by the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office for Priscilla Slater, pictured.

A cause of death recently was released by the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office for Priscilla Slater, pictured.

HARPER WOODS — The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office has released its findings in the death of 38-year-old Priscilla Slater, stating that she died due to an undetermined cardiac problem and may have suffered from a seizure in her jail cell.

Slater, an African American woman, was found dead while in the custody of the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety shortly after midnight June 10. The case has caused significant public outcry regarding potential impropriety on the part of Harper Woods police officers. The matter is being investigated by the Michigan State Police.

Attorney John Gillooly, who is representing the city of Harper Woods in a suit by Slater’s family, said the results by the medical examiner prove that there was no improper action taken on the part of the city or the Department of Public Safety that led to her death.

“As I cautioned the public, the protesters and the media, they shouldn’t jump to conclusions. The results of the autopsy and toxicology report suggests our officers did nothing wrong and that Ms. Slater died of natural causes while in custody of the department,” he said. “We are convinced now more than ever that there is no legal liability on the part of Harper Woods.”

Some critics of the city of Harper Woods’ actions maintain that Slater was left unmonitored in her cell for too long, which still could constitute negligence on the part of the Department of Public Safety.

“We still are awaiting results of the Michigan State Police investigation, so we don’t know when cell checks were done and how long she had been left alone,” responded Gillooly. “That information will come to light in the next four to six weeks.”

Attorney Geoffrey Fieger is representing Slater’s family in a suit against the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety. His office did not respond to requests for comment on the cause of death being made public.

Two Harper Woods police officers, Deputy Chief John Vorgitch and patrol officer Michael Pineau, were fired Aug. 19 in connection to the investigation, due to Pineau allegedly altering his report regarding Slater’s death on the orders of Vorgitch.

Pineau is now suing the city of Harper Woods for wrongful termination. Pineau’s lawyer, Mark Porter, said his client is being used as a “scapegoat” in the matter of Slater’s death and that Pineau did nothing improper.

According to Porter, Pineau was the first officer who saw Slater was dead and wrote in his report that her wrist and arm were cold. However, Porter said that in Pineau’s initial report, he also wrote that rigor mortis had set in, and that this was the section he was asked to remove.

“He got fired for putting two words into an incident report that accurately described what he saw on June 10 regarding Ms. Slater’s death,” Porter said. “Those words were ‘rigor mortis.’ The deputy chief told him to take them out. He went to the director of public safety (Vincent Smith) and told him he was told to take those two words out four days later (on June 14), and then no one said or did anything about it for two months. (Pineau) was called in off the road and discharged on Aug. 19.”

Porter also said that his client attempted to help Slater and administer aid.

“A civilian service aid was supposed to check on the prisoners, and she came out to say the woman in the cell appeared to be dead,” said Porter. “Pineau went in to attempt to administer aid. He wasn’t even one of the officers who arrested her. He wasn’t on duty until that evening.”

Gillooly said Pineau still has to be held accountable for changing a report dealing with a woman’s death.

“The city continues to believe it made the appropriate but difficult decision in terminating officer Pineau’s employment,” said Gillooly. “Officers of the law have to be honest in their reports and trustworthy in performing their duties.”

Porter said Pineau is a whistleblower who informed his commanding officer about being told to alter the report. He also is suing the city for what is called “false light.”

“The second claim is called false light,” explained Porter. “It means you put a whole bunch of information out there to put someone in an unfavorable light in the eyes of the public. (The city) says he conspired with the deputy chief to take those words out of the report. Everyone is wondering what ‘manipulation and concealment’ mean, which is what the city said, and the only thing taken out was ‘rigor mortis,’ which he was told to take out and that he later reported.”

“It’s a well calculated attempt to get his job back,” said Gillooly. “There’s no doubt about it. Whistleblower claims are almost always filed these days with that sort of goal. Whether it was one word, two words or 100 words that were removed, the report has to be accurate and it may have been relevant to an external investigation.”

“They humiliated and disgraced him, and now they will have to defend that action in public,” said Porter.

Gillooly maintains the city of Harper Woods is doing its best in the midst of a very troubling situation.

“The city of Harper Woods remains extremely disappointed with the situation regarding Ms. Slater’s death,” he said. “There is room for improvement and it will continue to try to improve and will not stop until all residents and those who come to visit within the city receive full and equal protection of each and every law.”